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Sure, life

The rhythmic strum of the tide makes it hard to lose interest in the sea when it’s right outside your door. The waves crash and tumble, rain mixed with salty spray on some days. Everything rusts. And on other days it’s as calm as a millpond while the tide keeps its eternal promise to the shore. Their dance is a chaotic one, filled with flurries, twirls and surprises, yet it’s predictable. Testament to this is the accurate-to-the-minute tide-table that sits by my window; while chaos, ceaseless energy and authority abound in the intertidal realm beyond its panes.

After a morning completing some dreary-day tasks, a gleam of sunshine lulled me out. Twenty five steps and I was on the rounded pebbles of upper Borth beach walking towards the sea to meet its mood in a state of subdued restlessness. The dancers had parted after a brief but coarse embrace and recoiled in time to that ancient refrain. Sea and shore; lovers and haters, deposition and erosion, creator and destroyer. Life and death.

One of the most interesting aspects of any shoreline is where there are rock pools, wave-cut platforms and cliffs. Luckily, all exist at this end of the beach and I strode out across the mudstones and shale of the Aberystwyth grits towards large outcrops of rocks now fully exposed at the apex of low tide. The pools teamed with life. Small fish of unknown species darted between my feet as I hopped between exposed rocks, trying to keep from falling in. Peering into the shallows, the colours which met my eyes were hard to believe. Seaweeds at different depths glistened with purples, reds, greens and yellows, while pink anenomies stretched out their sticky tentacles in hope of some drifting food. Shrimp bobbed up and down as if suspended by invisible string, their opaque segmented bodies flicking attentively in the clear water.

Further towards the sea, where communities of plants and animals spend more of their time submerged, changes were afoot. The muscles on the rocks grew smaller, while worm casts grew in abundance. Different seaweeds clung to the sides of rock pools and I noticed the limpets cemented to the exposed rocks were now of considerable size. I speculated that this was due either to the longer foraging time enjoyed by these fellows compared to their upper-shore companions, or that somehow a smaller shell was advantageous for surviving for longer out of the water, for resisting predation by seabirds, or both. Either way, the most remarkable innovation of these shell covered creatures is their immovability. When disturbed, they adhere to smooth rock with more strength than human hands could hope to dislodge, rendering them more or less invulnerable to attack.

Climbing to the top of a large boulder densely covered in coarse barnacles I surveyed the view. Waves leapt at my feet from the foaming sea while the sky, dark and foreboding, brewed its next cascade of rain. I pulled my hood down and peered back towards the village. I felt happy to be on that rock and even happier that I could see my house from it. Drawing back a lungful of sea air as if it had to last me until next time, I clambered down the other side. On a distant rock a group of cormorants stretched open their wings to dry in the wind. I continued my journey along the shoreline.

It wasn’t long until I made a finding which completed my sojourn enough for me to turn for home contented. In places at the furthest point from the beach, the rock was marked with strange rings much like the Neolithic burial engravings I recently witnessed in Western Scotland. But these were not human symbols. They were the ‘home-scar’ of limpets. Limpets are herbivores and forage for algae when the tide washes over them, returning to the exact same spot on their rock when the water recedes, thus causing a deep ring-like scar to form over countless lunar cycles. So, the presumably dead limpets which once returned to these grooves twice a day for their entire lives have left behind a simple but bold legacy. Perhaps it was their permanence and fastidiousness that Neolithic Man admired in the humble limpet, enough to persuade him that a simple ring carved into a slab of stone was all that is needed to say “this is where I belong, this is my home”.

limpet ‘home-scars’

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The Black Wood

Creeping through the last light of day, our thoughts became resolute with night. Our feet paced the road as it haemorrhaged warmth back into the cool air. The sun had set over the Loch, and through the trees which lined the water’s edge poured feelings of comfort and anticipation, set against a distant glowing sky. We spoke little and softly of what we might find in the woods, stopping occasionally to examine a plant or to inhale the sweet air. Mostly we moved at a pace, to take our positions before dark.

We stopped, listened and then with a swift backward glance stepped off the road and up onto the moss choked bank, boots sinking into dark green. Our feet found their way in the dying light as we traipsed through a rough clearing and up, enveloped by the ancient embrace of gnarled lichen covered birches, standing sentinel at the perimeter of obscurity.

The wood soon became our ally and conquered the enemy in our minds. And as long as the pale sky continued to cast enough light to see, we followed deer tracks and looked for other signs. Fallen wood was everywhere and the smell of pine sap filled our lungs. Ever deeper. The wood was inhaling us now; a pull towards its centre. The wind blew restfully, letting us know the way – the wind permeates everything, even the density of the Black Wood.

Where is Spring?

The key turned tediously in the lock. I was determined to get out, not just out, but noticeably out –with a purpose. For too long it has been winter here in Bristol; I have been to Wales and felt the spring arrive (despite spending the beginning of April in a bothy surrounded by snow-covered moorland); and in the north a friend awaits for a weekend spent camping and trekking in the black woods of Rannoch. In Bristol, however, I have neglected the passing of the winter. The transition has not begun here. Spring is as much in the mind as it is in the unfurling buds and newly scented blossom – you must make every effort for the summer, just as the blackbirds strive to find good nesting sites, and as hatchling tadpoles in road-side verges struggle against the closed jellied walls of their prison-like world.

So, as they say – I went out to blow the cobwebs away. The morning had been bright and warm and I spent it indoors, now on my way down the road the wind howled me down and rain lashed at my face. I wandered up past the common and noticed emerging leaves on the approaching horse chestnuts. Green emeralds sparkling against the heavy sky. I touched one and it shook, wavering delicately; they are like young giants, I thought.

Tennis players in shorts strode by. People laboured in allotments as the sun began to shine again. I traversed a broken track cutting behind houses and overgrown gardens where starlings, tree sparrows and blackbirds went about their business. Sparrows darted out between hedgerows in groups, and the blackbirds watched me guardedly, balancing on ash twigs. The starlings were more ominous though, peering down like a group of bored teenagers, scuffing their feet in the dirt. They chattered at my approach, little movement and asking glances. Ugly beauties, full of dissent and malice. I tried to photograph them and they all scattered like marbles.

Onward, through suburbs accompanied by traffic I moved towards the Downs for some peace, stopping on route to photograph patches of interesting lichen on a tree. I got to the vastness of the Clifton downs only to be greeted by the affliction of a travelling funfair. Rides on the back of badly stabilised rusting trucks flung people up into the stratosphere, returning them to the sodden earth upside-down and with their guts twisted; while dodgems twirled to house music and bright lights like a bastard-robot ballet.  Not the sign of spring I had hoped for. Screams filled the damp air and mud and litter furnished the paths. I longed for the company of the starlings again. I circumnavigated the perimeter fence looking for a way to sneak in, flirting with the mind of my circus-loving alter ego. Getting bored I moved towards some scrub where elder leaves matured and a joyful tree pipit sailed by. I wandered aimlessly for a while and then turned for home as the rain returned.

On the way back I saw the suggestion of spring everywhere; the puddles, the mud, the bareness of the trees became the things of a winter past – they were becoming rare, endangered, and I saluted their presence and place in my memory, for they might one day be the things of my yearning. Perhaps, once summer weighs down on me like a stone I shall look for the signs of winter in the dry ground, the green trees or the scent of mown grass.

Starlings

I took leave of the station and pushed my bicycle across town. The sun had set somewhere behind the cloud and a breeze crept through my clothes, the harsh monochrome of tarmac and condensed breath did little to change my mind: it was cold.

I turned and looked towards the busy roundabout I had just crossed, and noticed something which made my pulse quicken. A group of starlings were swarming over the roofs of some nearby houses. Then another – two small flocks, with no more than fifty birds in each, weaving between each other, shimmering and iridescent in the fading light. I stood and stared, focused on the morphing shapes in the distance; the road, the cars, the pale faces all fell away and I continued to watch. I pushed my bike across the road, back towards the roundabout and then through the streets of terraced houses towards the epicentre. Finally I found them above a quiet car park. I sat on a wooden post and watched fly-over after fly-over, listening  to their occasional chatter.

At one point I became aware of a Leylandii in a nearby garden from which five or six starlings were flushed, I presumed by a cat, and flew out of their cover in frantic flight. Regaining posture and elegance they took formation and headed for the nearest flock. As one ever-moving, flowing entity it was hard to distinguish individuals and the mass behaved as if it were a liquid, lucid and free against the sky. Occasionally the dense ball-like form spread across the horizon in undulating patterns, like a child throwing waves through an outstretched rope; then they’d reform and fly back overhead in a wonderful exhibit of peaceful fortitude.

Suddenly a stark uproar cut through the cold air – a sound like muted clapping rang across the walls of nearby houses and movement erupted once again from within the leylandii. Starlings burst out in every direction like planes scrambled from an airfield. There were many more than before, and more than I believed could comfortably roost in such a tree. The birds desperately took flight away from the unseen danger; but then there it was.

Tumbling from the branches, beak-over- talon was a sleek, bright sparrowhawk clasping a writhing starling. I watched in surprise as the hunter and prey blurred together in freefall, into a garden and out of sight. Birds continued to flee the scene for a minute or two before calm was restored. I stayed still hoping to catch sight of the sparrowhawk again, but it did not appear.

Overhead, bolstered by the newly arrived refugees from the leylandii, the flock seemed ever more fluid and elastic as they embarked on the last of the day’s manoeuvres. I wheeled my bicycle out of the car park and back towards the roundabout, feeling a little warmer.

Starlings above Otmoor, near oxford.

Drainage Channel

Startled by my presence, the barnacle geese I had been watching took off together, barking loudly. A mass of large round bellies with undercarriages tucked away swooped overhead, long necks piercing the air with a well rehearsed precision while a whirr of wings thrashed in the pallid sky… I watched them disappear, and then crossed the stile carefully, slightly saddened that my arrival should cause such outrage.

'Incoming Barnacle Geese' by Martin Ridley

The train had pulled away after an anxious looking conductor gave me a reassuring wave and a sardonic smile. I listened as the wind consumed the last clink of wheel upon track, digested into memory. The air was icy; a colourful weather map displayed on a computer screen the night before was alive in my mind, isobars converging, forming a formidable area of low pressure. No pressure now, I thought. The day was looking reasonably bright despite the cold wind and there was still plenty of daylight ahead.

I had alighted at Dovey Junction, an isolated point between settlements in the Dyfi Valley. Not many folk get off here except sometimes to change trains, heading north. The platform is exposed and remote with a small rough track leading to the road. The estuary begins to widen at this point and yellowing phragmites rustle, restless in the breeze like white noise. Flocks of waders make small arching paths to new feeding grounds somewhere in the distance and dark clouds gather over the hills with a promise of snow.

Now over the stile I follow the unnaturally straight line of a drainage channel. On the map it juts abruptly out, straight and narrow in stark contrast to the braided intertwining fingers of the Dyfi estuary. Soft ever-changing shapes in softer mud. The map shows the channel as a featureless ribbon of blue working with human-enhanced efficiency draining into the river. On the ground, mountain waters mix with salt – a conflict of densities; fresh water colliding and rising above. Hammerhead clouds gather. Warm moist air masses climb over cold depressions, spilling down and mixing, expelling energy in a brackish sky.

My path follows the tumbling water. Estuary to mountain. A cross-stitch to join landscapes, bonding their existence both temporally and spatially. Water giving presence to life, purpose in presence, and joy in being.

The track, discreetly marked on my map follows the unnamed channel, water rippling with untold force in the sunlight. In shallow depths, well rounded pebbles cast dark shadows and cause undulation upon the surface. A comforting yet restless friction- raging against suppression, a plea for open water, or an indication of temperance. On the opposite bank, alders arch and bow heavy with catkins and cones: duality upon one branch, and a declaration of the coming spring.

The following post is a response to a comment left by my friend Josh, following the post ‘Farewell to Silence’. Josh raised some interesting points which got me fired up- and as I sat down to respond, I ended up going on a bit, so have provided my reply below. I hope this can start some interesting debate on the issues Josh has brought to the surface.  I am no expert on invasive species, but felt compelled to put across my point of view.

Here’s Josh’s comment of 12/01/10:

Your mention of the Blue Jay planting acorns in England after the ice ages made me think about the debate over ‘invasive’ species. Are humans simply like the Jay, picking up plants and animals of interest and seeding them elsewhere? Is our eradication of ‘non-native’ species a refusal to acknowledge that we are in fact a part of nature?

In Point Reyes National Seashore on the California coast, where I am now living, the National Park Service has been chopping down Eucalyptus trees and shooting Tule deer because they were introduced by humans. By that rationale we should also be shooting humans as we are only native to the savannahs of East Africa.

And here’s my reply:

The terms ‘invasive’ and ‘non-native’ are not interchangeable. Invasive species are usually non-native, but not all non-native species are invasive. For example, the natural diversity of many UK woodlands is threatened by the spread of Rhododendron ponticum, a species which is not native to the UK and is easily able to dominate – eliminating any competition and destroying valuable habitats. They are aggressively invasive plants and make it impossible for native species to re-colonise, unless we intervene. I have spent many-an-hour hacking at the tough branches of these shrubs.

On the other hand, you will often find foreign species of oak trees coexisting in a community with native varieties. These two extreme examples illustrate the difference between non-native and invasive; through the measure of ecological damage inflicted. Most non-native species do not become invasive; indeed, many are of direct benefit to society in the form of food crops and domesticated animals, but Defra place invasive non-native species as one of the direct drivers of loss of biodiversity and a major threat to ecosystem stability.

You could argue that, seeing as they do so well in their new habitat isn’t this just a natural part of plant evolution? In the case of rhododendron – it was introduced into parklands because of its beauty and potential to act as annual game cover. Of course, the people that introduced it didn’t realise the damage it could cause many generations down the line. Another principle reason for the fast spread of invasive species is our globalised system of trade and transport – helping plants and animals to cross geographical barriers which have separated isolated populations, sometimes for millennia. So, as we seem directly accountable for their spread, are we not also responsible for the control of invasive non-native species? That’s an open question.

In the case of the Jay, there is one fundamental difference between this bird and humans which means we cannot apply the same logic to defend our introducing of invasive species – as Josh suggested. Jay’s have evolved an almost symbiotic relationship with the oak tree – they are of mutual benefit to one another. The oaks success as a species is in part down to the well evolved planting habits of the Jay and the Jay relies on the oak’s acorns for winter sustenance. Whereas us humans, I think we’re in a rather different boat when it comes to picking up exotic specimens for our museums, parks and gardens.

It is true however, that emotions and social values can play a crucial role in deciding what stays and what goes – invasive species represent a large cost to society, not just to nature. Eradication costs, loss of crops, human illness (bacteria are invasive too) and plant pathogens (such as ‘sudden oak death’ and Dutch Elm disease), increased flood risk and damage to infrastructure and other ecosystem services all stack up to make a good economic case for dealing with our invasive species. The cost per year to agriculture alone in the UK has been estimated to be US$6.6 billion and $58 billion in the US; with aggregated environmental, social and ecological costs thought to be $1.4 trillion globally (Pimentel, 2001; 2004) *.

Last winter I was at a Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) conference which focused on climate change and invasive species. Strange, you might think that these topics were placed together in the agenda of a globally attended conference. But as it happened, throughout the various testimonies given over four days, I found that these issues simply go hand-in-hand and are of equal threat to global biodiversity. Climate change will increase species migration and open vectors for colonisation of new invasive species into areas which were previously free of them. Invasive species are now recognised to be an equal threat to global ecosystem and economic health as climate change and habitat loss, certainly – Westminster, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Government seem to cooperate reasonably well on this issue.

“Is our eradication of non-native [invasive] species a refusal to acknowledge we are a part of nature?” I actually believe the opposite to be true; we are only now coming to terms with the immense damage to the biosphere caused by our own actions, and we are attempting to unpick them, to prioritise the response and to predict latent problems which may arise – just as with climate change. We are linked into the future of global biodiversity because its health is our survival.

I do not know about what the park service are up to where you live, but I agree it is a hard one to swallow when they start killing elk and chopping trees down in the name of ‘conservation’. However, let me round up with an anecdote which may help.

A couple of years ago I was talking to a ranger who had been working on the Uist’s in the Outer-Hebrides, he had been tasked with clearing the islands of their non-native hedgehogs. The reason being, hedgehogs had been accidently introduced some years before and bred rapidly in an environment with no natural predators and plenty of easy food in the shape of bird eggs (the Uist’s are host to many ground-nesting waders). So, the ranger’s job was to cull the hedgehog population of the Outer-Hebrides to preserve an important habitat for wading birds. It was a thankless task. Barely before his job had begun, a campaign was launched to save the Uist hedgehogs and the complaints came flooding in. All of a sudden, an army of angry mainlanders were demanding an end to the persecution (the majority of local inhabitants apparently supported the cull). Eventually SNH bowed to public pressure and arranged a difficult and expensive ‘humane’ project to live capture the hedgehogs and transport them to the mainland.

The question ‘to intervene or not’ seems erroneous when we already do in every sense.

* Due to insufficient data and uncertain legislative responses it is difficult to be certain of the accurate economic cost of  invasive species.

References:

Pimentel, D et al, 2001. Economic and environmental threats of alien plant, animal, and microbe invasions. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment. Vol 84, issue 1.

Pimentel, D. 2004. Update on the environmental and economic costs associated with alien-invasive species in the United States. Ecological Economics.

A Farewell to Silence

Walking back from university one overcast afternoon in early autumn, I was struck by the silence of the city.

The air was still; there was the distant hum of traffic as people passed by on their bikes and couples talked, but the woodland was quiet. The building work which had been noisy all week was on hold except for a few diggers moving earth about in unconscious supremacy. Yellow-clad men in helmets worked hard to clear a ditch between the path and the field which had previously been occupied by a dense thicket of young ash saplings and hawthorn. Their saws cut the air- anonymous paths, long hidden were now exposed to the sky.

Further along, I looked across a field marked out for new houses. A sea of teasels stretched into distant haze. Suddenly a shape darted across the white washed horizon – a sparrow hawk graciously hunting amongst the scrub. Rising upward, struggling against the land. It hovered as if on tip-toes, arched down and hovered again, repeated and then alighted in a tree. I thought for a moment about the future of this land, and the wildlife granted its use for the many years it has been fenced off from people.

A convenient fold in the mesh fencing gave me access… I followed a narrow well-worn path to the centre of terra incognita and sat down. This land will soon be under concrete, I am the last to feel its warmth, I thought. The tall grass about me rustled while stunted willows bowed, trying to shake the dew which clung to the last of their leaves. The place was remarkably free from colour for autumn but beauty lay elsewhere today – in the parting of a landscape and the virtue of life.

The next day my mind was busy and the pace of my bicycle gave little time for reflection as I sped past the gap in the fence. Near a large horse chestnut with outstretched welcoming limbs a jay flew across my path, startling us both. She rasped alarm and noisily disappeared through the trees in a flash of brilliance.

Jays hold an important and little known place in the shaping of our countryside. The majority of oak trees outside of woodlands are planted by these birds, making a store of acorns for the spring. It is likely that the spread of oaks from Southern Europe at the end of the last Ice age was helped by the Jay’s curious planting habits, and if it weren’t for them, oaks may not have made it back to Britain as one of our native trees today. Crossing paths with this individual, I couldn’t help but wonder how the woodland and surrounding landscape will be changed by the construction work planned over the coming years. We are building on all available land as our population expands, but the coming of diggers and high-vis jackets usually heralds the disappearance of wildlife and the loss of soil.

So how can we conserve nature while finding ourselves a place within it? An important question for uncertain times – but as climate change places further pressures upon ecosystems we desperately need answers.

And as we struggle to come to terms with our quandary, the jay continues to plant her acorns in the scrubland- only for them to be promptly dug up again by mechanical hands.

Her persistence is remarkable, but in nature it is everything.